Toronto Star: Canadian-made robot helping assess dementia at retirement home

A retirement home in north Toronto is preparing to welcome an unusual resident: Ludwig, an artificially intelligent robot.

Adorned with spiky mauve-coloured hair, green-tinged eyes and a few quirky facial expressions to mimic a range of emotions, the two-foot-tall robot is made to look and act like a little boy.

But his job is far from child’s play.

By drawing his elderly neighbours into conversation, Ludwig’s creators say he can track and monitor signs of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

He’s so good, he can detect subtle changes in speech and vocal patterns that might escape retirement home staff, says Isaac Weinroth, executive director of One Kenton Place, where Ludwig will begin trials next month.

“Even things like the time gap between verbs, or the use of verbs, or lack of verbs, the time gap between sentences, between words in sentences,” he says.

“Those are the kind of minute changes that the robot and the technology can pick up as it interacts with an individual, that we as human beings don’t necessarily track as well.”

And the earlier such changes are caught, the sooner the resident can get help, says Weinroth.

“You might need to adjust medication or even day-to-day activities. If somebody is showing weaknesses in one area you can focus on that area to try and strengthen it.”

Ludwig, named after philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, was developed by a research team at the University of Toronto.

Team leader Dr. Frank Rudzicz predicts artificial intelligence “will play a huge role in elderly care going forward,” envisioning robots could also monitor seniors in their own homes eventually.

“There’s going to be a huge rise of incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in the next couple of decades,” says Rudzicz, a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and an assistant computer science professor at the U of T.

“Right now, there’s about 600,000 people in Canada with the disease. That will go up to about 1.5 million in the next few decades. And there aren’t enough people to look after all of these individuals.”

Ludwig is not meant to replace care provided by flesh-and-blood nurses and doctors, adds Rudzicz, describing the technology as more of a “stop-gap.”

“It’s going to be a way to take away some of the burden for those individuals and current nurses and doctors to focus on what they normally do,” he says.

“It’s hard to predict the future. I think people are becoming more accepting of technology than they used to be. So I’m hopeful.”

During a demonstration at One Kenton Place on Tuesday, Ludwig asked 97-year-old Elizabeth Graner her name and some simple questions, but the conversation would stall whenever the senior failed to hear what the robot was saying.

Graner’s daughter, Penny Blake, was skeptical that Ludwig would be able to offer anything more than she or any other human caregiver could.

“It was a good college try, maybe it needs more work or whatever,” Blake said after the demonstration, in which Ludwig asked her mother to describe images on a tablet.

“Humans make connections a lot easier than computers,” Blake continues.

“I’m not convinced he could (do a better job). Maybe he can aid a human, maybe he can be a good toy for these guys.”

Researchers expect Ludwig will be fine-tuned as he’s put into practice.

An introductory trial in August will be followed by more rigorous research in October and November. If all goes well, a more sophisticated version of Ludwig could start popping up in retirement homes across the country, says Weinroth.

“This is a multi-year project,” adds Rudzicz. “We’re at the very beginning of it now.”

Byline: Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press